Art as Advocacy: ASU Graduate Builds Bridges of Connection Through Dance

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April 27, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Julia Chacón graduated from Arizona State University in May with a master’s degree in dance and a master’s degree in creative enterprise and cultural leadership, and begins her requirements as a doctoral candidate in the Theater and Performance of the Americas program.

Julia Chacon. Photo by Mary Nelle Brown

It’s a lot to balance, but Chacón said she always tries to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way.

As an undergrad at the University of New Mexico, she had no plans to study dance in college. She took classes to stay in shape and keep dancing, then received a dance scholarship in addition to an academic scholarship.

“Doors kept opening for me,” Chacón said. “Then it was quite natural, the progression to working with companies.”

After touring for 12 years as a flamenco artist, living in Spain and performing with companies based in Madrid, Seville, New York and Tampa, Chacón decided it was time to pursue his other goals.

“Dancing has been my career, but my goal was always to teach at a university,” she said. “My undergraduate teachers had a lasting impact on my career, and it’s something I would really love to do for young dancers and for young adults.”

To do this, she had to continue her studies.

“I had always intended to go back to graduate school, but my tour ended up taking longer than I thought it would,” she said. “It was just the right time.”

Born in New Mexico – where her father is from – and raised in Phoenix, Chacón often traveled back and forth between the two states with her family. Growing up in Arizona, she said she knew many people who had attended ASU and was always very curious about the program. She said the deciding factor was when she came to tour the facility and met Becky Dyer, associate professor of dance and somatics.

“[Dyer] was so encouraging and warm,” Chacón said, “and she really made me feel that there could be a place for me to pursue my masters here.

Chacón followed that instinct and continues to embrace the opportunities that come her way.

“The creative enterprise and cultural leadership program is something I discovered during my master’s degree,” she said. “It felt like such a wonderful and interesting program. It really examines the intersection of arts, entrepreneurship, and civic practice, and that intersection is a place where I enjoy working. I worked with city and town governments as a volunteer, so it was super interesting for me. And then as a business owner and someone who’s been dancing for so long and had my own classes, I’m also an entrepreneur. The topics covered were really relevant to me. As I could do both degrees simultaneously, I decided to take the plunge.

And then she chose to tackle her doctorate.

When told by Tamara Underiner that the Theater for Performance of the Americas program only accepts students every two years, Chacón decided to apply and was accepted. Underiner is the Associate Dean for Professional Development and Engagement at ASU’s Graduate College and Associate Professor in the School of Music, Dance, and Theater, where she is the founding director of the Doctoral Program in Theater and Performance of the Americas. . Chacón said that all of ASU’s faculty members have supported him throughout his journey.

“Julia has been a force in both the community and the university,” said Naomi Jackson, professor at the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “She is an artist/academic who is passionately committed to making the arts accessible to the general public and gaining recognition for Latinx experiences.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

To respond: My “aha” moment in dance happened when I was very young. I loved dancing and was studying ballet but I also had to take other classes so I decided to take Spanish dancing. One day, my mother was late to pick me up, and I went back inside to wait. And there was a private lesson after my class, and it was this gorgeous dancer, just this beautiful woman – so expressive and so powerful. She said so many things with her body. I was transfixed.

After I finished dancing, my teacher started giving her corrections, but she wasn’t talking directly to the dancer; she was talking to someone who was sitting behind me in the hall. When I turned around and looked behind me, it was this young woman’s mother and grandmother. They signed the corrections for her because she was deaf. … She was talking so much with her body. I just felt this shift in the universe, and the Spanish dance kind of stole my heart. It was a very strong moment in my life. It was like after that moment, everything lined up.

Q: What did you learn at ASU — in class or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: One thing I learned at ASU is to use my art as advocacy. Dance in higher education has really focused on derivatives of modern dance and ballet. So, practicing a progressive art form, I didn’t have much access to studio space, as percussive dancing couldn’t be performed on the stages. I was very lucky to be part of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts seasonal lineup, but realized that for other percussion dancers who might come into or be accepted into the program, it could be really inhibiting for them. So for me it raised some access issues. I worked to advocate for other dancers who might come, who might need that space, and who don’t have the voice or the confidence to try to defend themselves. Students must have equal access and be able to share their art. Having the opportunity to use what I do to advocate on behalf of future students has been a huge lesson for me.

Q: Which teacher taught you the most important lesson at ASU?

A: One of the biggest things that happened during my time here was last semester. I was in class with only four other students. The class was “Objective, Collaboration and Accountability” with Michael Rohd and Maria Rosario Jackson. While we were in class with her, (President Joe) Biden chose her as president of the National Endowment for the Arts. So to be in class with her as this unfolded and hear from her, and to be next to her as she went through this experience was amazing. It was really wonderful. The fact that things like this are happening at ASU is fantastic.

Q: What is the best advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Plug in! See what else is there. Don’t just stay in your schedule because ASU is such an amazing place. It’s so vast and there are so many opportunities. My biggest advice would be to take electives outside of your department. Go far and reach high and find what inspires you, because you don’t know where it will take you. ASU is such an amazing resource, and the network that is here is phenomenal.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After completing my PhD, I intend to apply for teaching positions in universities. I want to stay in Arizona because my family is here. I feel like these degrees really prepare me to work in civic practice as well as work in a university. I will also continue to have my company and my classes.

Q: Did you receive any scholarships during your time at ASU, and if so, which ones? What did it mean to you to be able to receive this funding?

A: I had so much help, and it meant the world to me as a dancer. I am very rich in joy and experience and in my life’s work, but it is not the most financially lucrative career. Having support from ASU and scholarships and bursaries has really helped. I got all these little scholarships that were $200 here and $600 there, and I also got the graduate dance scholarship, which was extremely helpful to me. I also received TA support every semester, which enabled me to pursue these studies. All of this support means a brighter future and a better, more prepared career path.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve a problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would solve health care, especially for the mentally ill. It’s something that I think is a problem that plagues our society in so many ways, because it can often lead to self-medication, which leads to a lot of drug addiction, which leads to a lot of homelessness and petty crime. I feel like a more robust mental health program would benefit society in countless ways.

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